published Saturday, October 29th, 2011

Stebbins: Pick farmers markets for apples, mazes and other fall fun

By Tom Stebbins

I recently visited several farmers markets within short drives of Chattanooga. There is nothing sweeter than the smell of newly harvested apples and the taste of fresh cider. A taste test held by the University of Georgia found that consumers overwhelmingly preferred locally grown apples over shipped-in apples.

The farm markets have become agri-entertainment showcases. There are numerous activities for every member of the family. Some markets have an animal petting area. There is usually a pumpkin patch where kids can choose their own as long as they can carry it out of the field. A corn maze is becoming a standard feature at the markets. A few markets have areas where big and small kids can play on straw bales or drive a miniature tractor. Kids like the simple activities. A giant sand pile was the favorite feature, according to one market owner.

Most places have at least 10 varieties of apples to choose from. Pumpkins of all sizes, colors and shapes are available. Every store has a gift shop with local crafts and homemade preserves, jams and jellies. Every market brags about having the best fried apple pie. Of course I had to do my own taste test at each market.

Southern favorites

The primary apple harvest period for this area extends from about mid-August to late October. Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, Rome and Winesap are the primary varieties grown for sale to grocery stores. Many growers with farm markets have other varieties available, such as Gala, Empire, Jonagold, Melrose, Arkansas Black and Fuji. Only 15 varieties of apples account for 90 percent of the total production in the United States.

If you look hard enough you may find some heirloom apples. These are cultivars passed down through the generations. Arkansas Black is a variety said to have come from a Winesap seedling in the Ozark mountains around 1870. It's a beautiful apple and a good winter keeper. Rock-hard when first picked, the apples soften and improve in flavor with storage.

There are 2,500 apple varieties grown by gardeners in the United States. Many of these apples are found to have distinctive purposes -- for making cider, applejack, vinegar, applesauce and apple butter, dried apples, apple leather, winter keeping and some even to perfume a home.

Plant a fruit tree

Mid-February through March is the best time to plant a fruit tree. Autumn is a good time to prepare the site, get a soil test and choose the right varieties. For best production, most apple varieties need to be cross-pollinated by a second variety having viable pollen and that blooms at the same time. Pollinator trees should be planted near the variety to be pollinated.

Trees usually arrive bare-rooted and can be "heeled in" until planting time. To heel-in a tree, dig a trench and place the tree roots evenly in it, cover the roots with soil, sawdust or peat, and water the tree thoroughly. The tree can be kept for several weeks using this method before permanently planting.

Find a full-sun location and dig a hole twice as wide and the same depth as the root mass. Fill with the original soil. Water abundantly at first then only as needed to keep the soil moist, not soaked. Add about 2 inches of mulch around the tree to hold moisture and to smother weeds.

Wait until spring growth before pruning to shape the tree. The shape of a properly trained apple tree is like that of a Christmas tree. Strive for a straight central trunk with whorls of branches at varying heights. See UT publications for detailed pruning and care.

For the nearest Tennessee farmers markets, visit the Tennessee Department of Agriculture website at www.picktnproducts.org.

For the nearest Georgia farmers markets, see the commodities section of the Georgia Farm Bureau website at www.gfb.org.

Contact Tom Stebbins at tstebbins@utk.edu or 423-855-6113.

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